9. Communicating the Gospel in a New Era

Part of the postmodern movement involves a change in the way people think, moving from an objective idea of truth, in which the observer is an uninvolved reporter, to a relational definition of truth in which understanding is created in a relationship between the observer and reality. [1] In this way of thinking, neither the observer nor the reality can be completely separated from the relationship they have with one another. From the perspective of Gospel communication, this can be positive, because it emphasizes conversation and dialogue. It moves disciple-makers from a purely “proclamation centered” view of sharing the gospel to a “conversational, relational centered” approach to evangelism. This change is consistent with the Biblical view that faith and understanding flow from a personal relationship between a relational, Triune God and the human race established through the Word of God by the Spirit.

Communicating and Community

The word, “communicate” has at the same root as the words, “community” and “communion”. We think of communication as something spoken or transmitted by words or symbols. This way of thinking reduces communication to the transmission of information. This can lead to an approach to sharing the gospel that is impersonal and unbiblical. Real communication is not just about information, it is about establishing a communion with another person while seeking to answer the deepest questions of their heart, spoken or unspoken.

Jesus, when he was amongst his disciples, was in an intense community with them. The disciples experienced more in this relationship than just Jesus as a transmitter of information. Jesus lived with him. He shared his life with him. He ate with them. He drank with them. The band of disciples was a kind of community in which the disciples found information, but also support, love, advice, and even the physical necessities of life. It was in this community that the Gospel was lived out and shared. When Jesus corrected his disciples, they knew he did so from love and friendship and for no other reason. Often, he knew what they really wanted to know even before they asked (See, Matthew 12:25; Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8; 11:17).

Non-Christians See What You Do as Much as Hear What You Say

In the area of child-raising, there is a saying that children “imitate what we do and not do what we say.” Every parent knows this is true. The disciples not only said what Jesus had said and communicated information to them, they lived out among new believers the way of life of Jesus lived. Jesus had established a community, and so did the disciples. Here is the way Paul describes it in one of his letters:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.  But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 22:18-24).

The Ephesians and other with whom Paul lived and ministered knew who Paul was and how Paul reacted to stress, conflict, opposition, threats and the like—not just from his words but from his actions and behavior. In times of conflict, Paul could write with authority to those who had lived in close proximity to him and knew of his heart for God and for them (See, 2 Corinthians 6:3-13). Paul’s effectiveness as a disciple-maker reflects his effectiveness as a builder of Christian community. Wherever the apostle went, he personally created and participated in little Christian communities in which people and lives were changed in relationship with Christ, him, and one another.

Postmodern Communication

As mentioned earlier, the modern world was inclined to see knowledge and information as paramount, and relationships as something good, but really only an “add-on” to the information conveyed or as something desirable for better communication. Increasingly, in the postmodern discipleship based upon this type of approach is not effective. From the insights of contemporary physics to communication theory, relationship is of paramount importance. This does not mean Christians do not believe that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life.” It means that we need new ways of communicating such information in the context of human relationships.

Postmodern people tend to be deeply pragmatic as well as relational. They, like our children, watch to see what difference faith makes before committing themselves to any belief system, including Christianity. In such a cultural environment, creating a relationship is as important as the message. People want to see the difference Christianity makes. This does not mean that the message is not important. It just means the relationship might be more important and longer lasting in its impact.

Just after the Second World War, the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer moved to his family in Switzerland and created a community known as L’Abri. Over the years, many people came to L’Abri and participated in the community. Many came to Christ and became Christian leaders. Scholars have critiqued some of the things Schaeffer taught. However, it is not possible to deny the reality and importance of L’Abri as a healing community. [2]

Conversations and Dialogues

Contemporary disciple-making profits looking at the meaning of both “conversation” and “dialogue.”  The meaning of these terms illuminates the difference between the idea of truth as the result of critical analysis and a relational model of truth. The term “conversation” comes from a Latin root “con” or “with” in English and “vertere” which means to “turn” or “bend.” Interestingly, like the Hebrew word for knowledge, this particular word was used in the 1500s as a synonym for sexual intercourse, and also had a connotation of a household, a manner of conduct and behavior or way of life in a home. In other words, a conversation is an intimate, deeply human relational activity. A conversation is implicitly communal and intended to create communion. It involves a relationship in which two or more individuals share their thoughts and lives in such a way that an understanding that is cognitive, emotional, and spiritual results. Hopefully, in the conversation, their ideas, thoughts, and commitments will be “bent” toward each other.

The word “dialogue” has a similar derivation. The Greek roots of this term are “dia” meaning “through” and “logos” meaning “reason.” The process of dialogue happens when two or more persons share meaning through the exchange of views, and new understanding emerges as meaning is shared and reality illuminated by differing points of view. [3] For two people to enter into a dialogue is for each to commit to a mutual exchange of ideas and information in the search for a better understanding of reality. A dialogue implicitly seeks a truth, which the parties are humble enough to know requires sharing ideas, thoughts, and perspectives in order to achieve.

Human beings sometimes have dialogues with themselves as they conduct an internal conversation about a decision or problem. Sometimes people dialogue with one other person for example about a personal business situation. And, of course, we dialogue in a larger context in which many people participate. In fact, the reasoning of Congress or the governing body of a church is a dialogue of sorts.

Not so long ago, I was faced with many difficult decisions in a relatively short period of time. The future of an organization was at stake. Sometimes I would disappear for a long walk to clear my head. While gone, I would have an internal conversation about a problem. More frequently, the executive director of the organization and I would meet. Each of us would share what we thought and our opinions about what others suggested we do. In the end, though I was the decision-maker, more often than not we took her advice or some third idea that neither of us had considered emerged. This is the benefit of a dialogue.

Dialogues and Community

It is easy to see that, if God exists as a community, and if that divine community is a community of shared meaning and love, then some form of conversation or dialogue in which two people can share deep meaning and purpose is most likely the best possible way to share the gospel. We’ve already established that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into a relationship of self-giving love of the kind that characterizes the Triune God. Obviously, that relationship of love cannot be achieved or sustained without a deep and personal sharing. This is why conversations are a big part of sharing our Christian faith.

In a conversation, we speak what we believe, others share what they believe, we ask questions and clarify our understanding, and we modify what we have said in order to reach a common understanding. To have a conversation with another person, involves inhabiting a common spiritual, emotional, and intellectual space to share concerns and information in a deep way. For Christians, this is more important than it would be for non-Christians because of our conviction that the ultimate rationality (the Logos of God) is revealed in the self-giving love Christ showed on the Cross—a love God shares with directly by the Spirit and through believers in Christ.

The Difference between Dialogue and Discussion

Dialogue is different from a mere discussion. Interestingly, the term “discussion” has the same route as the word “percussion.” A discussion can be no more than two people or groups expressing their views, with each trying to convince the other that their view is correct. [4] There is no community formed. There is simply an attempt to persuade. This kind of activity is subject to the post-modern critique that all truth claims are bids for power. A dialogue should not be a mere discussion. It should involve sharing meaning. Even in the context of a direct dialogue, there must be an open willingness to hear the other person’s views.

Although some proponents of dialogue suggest that we must suspend, give up, or hold in abeyance our own views to appropriately enter a dialogue, the kind of dialogue needed in conversations regarding faith requires only that we continue to hold our beliefs but remember that others do not share these beliefs and we may not be entirely correct in what we think. [5] Therefore, we must learn to be open-minded in how we share the Gospel and what we say. We do not need to give up who we are or what we believe. That would not be authentic. We do not need to agree with everything that is said by another person or persons. In fact, we should not do anything like the foregoing. We need to share our perception of the truth with love and openness to the opinions and views of others.

The Value of Unintentional Disciple-Making

Many people think of evangelism as involving intentional attempts to persuade others of the Gospel. We all know that some conversations occur intentionally, but many conversations occur spontaneously in the business of everyday life. We have conversations with our parents, children, grandchildren, neighbors, business associates, church members, political representatives, members of clubs we belong to, and many other people. Only a very few of those conversations begin with a religious premise.

Most conversations are not on a single subject matter. For example, when our family meets around the dining room table on a holiday we may talk about church, politics, books for reading, children and grandchildren, politics, the economy, hobbies, and many other subjects. No one is really in charge of the conversation. It may begin with one person talking about one subject, it may end with someone else suggesting that we change the subject.  In between, the conversation moves along a path chosen by those in the conversation, generally subconsciously and informally.

Perhaps most importantly, most people resent an exchange in which one person seems to be pushing an agenda or dominating the conversation. This means that we must enter a conversation armed with who we are as a person and not with an agenda to convert others. Although I have conversations that begin and ended with a religious premise, and are at least partially intended to explain the meaning of Christian faith, such conversations almost always begin with a question. In short, most conversations that have a Gospel component evolve as a part of a larger conversation and relationship among acquaintances.

Jesus and Dialogue

When Nicodemus came to Jesus to ask him questions in the middle of the night, the Gospel of John records a long conversation designed to help Nicodemus understand who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do (John 3:1-21). In the next chapter, Jesus meets a nonbeliever at a well in Samaria (John 4). The scene is something like this: Jesus and the disciples are traveling back to Galilee through Samaria. When they reach the town of Sychar, everyone is hungry. Outside of town there was a well where they choose stopped. (You can see the well today.) The disciples left Jesus at the well and went into town to get some food.

As Jesus sat by the well resting, a woman came to draw water at an usual hour. Jesus began the conversation with the woman by asking for a drink from the well, since she had brought her bucket with which to draw water. The woman was surprised that Jesus even spoke to her because she was a woman, a sinful woman, and a Samaritan. Jesus, ignoring the religious and racial conventions of his day, began a conversation with the woman. In the beginning, the woman spoke of physical water, at a point in the conversation in which Jesus was speaking of spiritual water. Eventually Jesus explained to the woman that he is the source of a kind of water that permanently quenches a deep human thirst. The woman, who like most Middle Eastern women of the day spent a lot of her time gathering water, wanted this kind of water.

This response allowed Jesus to speak into the spiritual life of the woman. Jesus explains that those who drink only physical water, meeting physical needs only, will always be thirsty again. In the spiritual world, those who drink of the love of God will never thirst again, because they are filled with the source of all love. (It has not yet been revealed, but this information meets this woman at the precise point of her own need for authentic love.)

The woman then asks for the water. Jesus, knowing the woman is not married but living with a man, asks her to bring her husband to see him. This allows Jesus to speak into the woman’s spiritual and moral condition. In the end, the woman understands that God is able to meet her desire for love without an endless series of men. She goes and tells everyone she knows about her conversation with Jesus at the well. As a result, the woman and many other Samaritans become Christ-Followers.

This story is helpful in understanding the importance of conversation. When the woman came to the well, she was an outcast in her society, known to be promiscuous, isolated, and alone. Jesus did not simply proclaim to her that she was a sinner who could receive restoration by confessing her sins and accepting him as the Messiah. Instead, he stepped out of the social conventions of his day, which did not permit a rabbi to speak to a promiscuous woman, and formed a relationship with her in the form of a conversation. It may seem like a small thing today, but in Jesus’s day for a rabbi to speak to such a person was unheard of. The woman not only received a message about living water but experienced the personal presence of that living water. Her relational isolation was healed by the presence of Jesus in. life transforming conversation.

Jesus did not change the truth he already knew about the woman or her moral and spiritual condition. He knew very well the woman’s condition both morally and spiritually. Nevertheless, he did not brow beat, condemn, or judge the woman. He entered into a relationship with her though a dialogue in which the woman discovered for herself who Jesus was and what he could do to heal her and her relationships.

Examples from Life

Some time ago, my wife and I led a class designed to help people learn to share their faith. One project of the class was learning to share Bible stories from memory. The second week or so, we learn the story of the woman caught in adultery.  In that particular class, there was a woman who decided that very week she wanted to drop out of the class. Some weeks later, she came back to tell us a story. Not long after dropping out, she had coffee with a friend who was having marital problems. Infidelity was involved. Her friend was not a Christian. Actually, her friend was opposed to Christianity due to some early life-experiences. The friend felt that her husband would never forgive her for what had happened. Our friend in a casual way spoke about what she remembered about the story of the woman caught in adultery. The other woman, who that her Christian friends would condemn her, had never heard the story. She left their coffee feeling supported, understood, and loved. I have no idea whether this person became a Christian or not. What is important is that a Christian friend shared the love of God with a friend at a critical time in her life. In the story and in the presence of a Christian friend, the woman felt God’s love.

This story contains important elements to ponder. First, our friend was not motivated to meet with her friend out of a desire to convert her to Christianity, save her soul, or add another convert to her list of Christian accomplishments. She was having coffee with an old friend who needed love and support. Although she did share God’s love, her purpose was to support and care for another human being. Second, our friend did not set out to make a gospel presentation or imply that coming to Christ would save her marriage. She simply told a story that related to the women’s situation and allowed the woman herself to decide how she would apply it to her life. [6] Our friend did not demand a commitment or response. Our friend shared the love of Christ with someone in need, communicating care and concern for the person.

In business, I’ve had important conversations that involved Christian faith. However, almost all the time they were in the context of some legal or business discussion. For example, years ago I spent a good deal of time with the manager of a local investment group. The group was trying to acquire a business in another state. We had to travel to and from another city and engage in incredibly tedious negotiations with a business owner with whom it was extremely difficult to communicate. One-night while flying home, the manager expressed an interest in why I handled a situation in the way I did during the negotiations that afternoon. He knew I was a Christian and assumed that my Christian faith had been guiding my words and actions in the negotiations. He was correct. We then had a conversation about the importance and difficulty of bringing Christian faith into business dealings. The context of our relationship was not religious nor was the situation a religious meeting. It was a business negotiation. Nevertheless, both of us grew in our faith as a result of the conversation that we had that evening on the airplane. I learned from him, and he learned from me. It was a dialogue. Incidentally, we were successful in acquiring the business.

Dialogue in a Lonely, Isolated Society

In a society characterized by loneliness and isolation, in which a good bit of the time people don’t feel loved but instead used, caring relationships in which the gospel is communicated in compassion is incredibly important. The basic prerequisite is to be centered in love upon the other person and his or her needs, not on any agenda, including the Gospel. The most important thing we do is just love the other person and try to sympathetically enter into his or her world.

There are, of course, a few useful techniques that are helpful in centering a conversation on the needs of the other. First, there is a technique known as “reflective listening.” Try, if possible to respond to the other by rephrasing what they have said to be sure you understand what they are saying. A good deal of the time, we think we know what another person is saying, but we do not. We have misunderstood. Learning to listen and pay close attention to what another person is actually saying is important.

Second, be aware of personal emotional responses. People can often say things that are either shocking or so opposed to what we deeply believe that we cannot help but be emotionally impacted. As a pastor, I have had many such experiences. Much of the time, if we are not self-aware, we end up responding too quickly and often too strongly. Our faces or physical movements may communicate our shock. When one detects such an emotional response, it is best to remain silent for time until you can respond in the kindest possible way.

Often, statements produce a physical response in us. Being aware of these physical responses is important. Experts report that the physical and emotional cues we give another person are just as important as the actual words of our response. It can take a bit of practice to not just speak words of love but also physically express our concern for the other and to resist physical responses that are inappropriate or unhelpful. For example, I tend to look away from a person if I truly disagree with what they are saying. When I look away, I am listening but the other person senses a disconnect. Looking a way often involves formulating a response to what is being said before the person is finished speaking. Although the other person may not know I am formulating a response (which they would not appreciate), they usually know I am not paying attention to what they are saying! The best practice is to pay close physical and mental attention to the other person until they are finished speaking.

The Fruit of Dialogue

It is impossible to over-estimate the fruitfulness of learning to have conversations and dialogues with other people, personally, professionally, and spiritually. Learning to have a good dialogue is an important element in being a good disciple-maker. Of course, dialogue is important as a person asks questions and explores what it would mean to become a disciple of Jesus. It is important to have answers to some questions. It is important to know a gospel presentation and to have a personal testimony. But, the most important thing is to be in a loving conversation with another person.

The conversations and dialogues we have with people after they have become Christ-Followers are just as important as those we have before they come to follow Jesus. People do not become perfect disciples the moment they accept Christ. Just like us, people resist change, make mistakes, hide their faults and shortcomings, and fear rejection if they are entirely honest about their struggles. If we are to help people at critical junctures in their walk with Christ, we have to continue to be open, non-judgmental, diplomatic, and conversational was we help them “learn to obey all that Christ has commanded.”

As mentioned at the beginning, our business as disciple-makers involves more than getting people to a point in which they except Christ as their Lord and Savior. Our business as disciple makers is to help him become deeply committed, mature disciples of Christ. This involves the ability to walk with another person, talk with another person, learn from and with another person, teach in mutual conversation and loving relationship, as both the disciple-maker and the new disciple grow in Christ. It is not easy, but it is the most rewarding thing we can do to show God’s love to those around us.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  It is the fundamental insight of quantum physics that level it is not possible to disengage the observer from the event being examined as was the model of investigation dominant in the modern world under the influence of the Newtonian view of science. This insight, first discovered at the subatomic level of physical reality has implications in other areas, and is a part of the emerging postmodern view of science. The American philosopher Charles S. Pearce foresaw this insight in his relational theory of signs, in which he spoke of the relationship between reality (an object under observation), an interpreter (observer), and the sign used to understand the reality observed. See, C.S. Pierce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties” in The Essential Charles S. Peirce Edward C. Moore, ed (New York, NY: Harper & Row), 1972.

[2]  Francis and Edith Schaeffer moved to Switzerland in 1955. Today, there are several L’Abri fellowships all over the world. To learn more visit,www.labri.org. Edith Schaeffer wrote the story of L’Abri in her book by the same name. It is well worth reading. See, Edith Schaeffer L’Abri(Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1992).

[3]  This section is much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[4]  On Dialogue, at 7.

[5]  This is an important difference between what is being said here and what some proponents of dialogue urge. David Bohm, for example, believes that a dialogue requires that we suspend our own opinions and beliefs.  When Bohm urges suspension of beliefs he means creating a situation where we neither believe or disbelieve. It is doubtful that this is even possible or desirable as to our most deeply held beliefs or the most deeply held beliefs of others. If I believe that God is Love it is neither necessary nor desirable that I suspend that belief to have a conversation with another person, whether or not they agree or violently disagree with that belief of mine. What is necessary is that I listen with love and be willing to be corrected where I may not be acting or believing consistently with that deeply held belief.

[6]  One important quality of stories is that a story does not demand or require acceptance or rejection. It simply allows another person to imaginatively enter into a narrative and decide for his or herself what impact if any the story has for the hearer. Jesus used parables in just this way. For example, in the story of the prodigal son, while many people see themselves as the prodigal, others to see themselves as the older brother or one of the servants.

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